A hundred years in the making

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – She was only six when women began to be counted as equals to men, gaining the right to vote. Just 16 when the Great Depression hit so many families and 50 years old when the Civil Rights Act was established in 1964.

Events that transpired more than a lifetime ago for most, but for Doris Lucille Williams Johnson these markers of American history are not just something she learned about reading a textbook or through word-of-mouth, she lived them.

September 1, 2014 marked the birthday of Johnson, and at 100 it was evident she had accumulated a caring extended family and quite a number of friends.

Friends and family flew in from all over the country to take part in the centennial birthday celebration. One-by-one taking a moment to remember fond memories they shared with Johnson.

Well known for her contributions to the area, Johnson has lived in the St. Petersburg area since 1938. Although she worked in the insurance business for some time, she settled into a position as a Pinellas County educator working at such schools as

Wildwood Elementary, Largo Central Elementary and Fuguitt Elementary, where she touched the lives of hundreds of children extolling her positive outlook and knowledge of academics.

Former fourth grade student, Darryl Moore, took time out to reminisce of those long ago years before Johnson was married. He knew her as Ms. Wilson and recalls a soft spoken, easy to get along with teacher. But even into adulthood, Moore remembers that side of his beloved teacher that held him accountable for his actions.

“I was one of those students that wanted attention,” laughed Moore. “She gave me attention, the old fashioned way.”

And as more grew brave to talk about their own time with the centurion, it became evident that Johnson, although blessed with a sweet kindly voice, was also known for her powers of persuasion.

Mamie Rodgers of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) remembers Johnson as a practical person who according to Rodgers practiced virtues of an angel every day. As she listed off words to describe Johnson such as protector, faithful, fearless and a warrior of prayer, she also remembers a woman that was persistent in her efforts to get others to join her cause.

“She got me into the NCNW,” said Rodgers who joined the group after years of Johnson prodding her to do so. “You might say no for a little while, but eventually you came around,” she continued.

Rodgers pointed out that 100 year birthday celebrations don’t come around everyday and encouraged everyone to not only give Johnson an extra hug, but 10 I love yous also.

“We are witnessing something here today that most of us in this room will never get to enjoy ourselves,” Rodgers said. “So let’s enjoy this.”

And enjoy it they did. With a hot dinner of chicken, macaroni and cheese, cornbread, and vegetables galore, guests enjoyed mouthful after scrumptious mouthful. Entertainment was also in full swing with various soloists singing to Johnson and the Happy Birthday song sung by her great grandnephew, Elijah Cabassa.

Married to Charles LeRoy Johnson, who has since passed, Johnson had no children. Her brother and three sisters too have moved on from this world, but her nieces and nephews, grand nieces and grand nephews, as well as her in-laws have taken up the call to watch over Johnson and were responsible for the outpouring of love witnessed at the 100th birthday event.

Before sitting down for cake, more friends and family strolled down memory lane, their love and respect for Johnson evident with each passing word, each remembered story.

Katherine Jones has known Johnson since she was a teenager herself. They worked together at Bethel Community Baptist Church where Johnson has been a member since 1938.

“Every time she sees me she knows me, even if she don’t know anybody else,” said Jones who feels Johnson has been blessed with a long life because of her good heart and her tireless work with the church.

Reverend Henry Jones drove down from Ocala to throw in his opinion of Johnson. He met her at Bethel Community Baptist many years ago but will never forget her sharp wittedness.

“She didn’t bite her tongue,” said Jones who recalls being told that if he were to speak in front of an audience, he needed to be prepared. The reverend, on in years himself, made the trip so that he could speak of Johnson’s dedication to Christ and the respect she showed every soul she crossed.

“She has been a strong stout woman in this neighborhood,” said Jones, “and in this community.”

Letters from various political figures were read to Johnson marking the momentous occasion. Mayor Rick Kriseman sent birthday wishes, along with Florida House Representative Darryl Rouson. Councilman Wengay Newton performed a singing telegram marking the 100-year anniversary of Johnson’s birth undoubtedly adding to the lighthearted mood.

“Through your lifetime you have touched the lives and hearts of so many and shaped the very character of those privileged to call you friend,” said Councilman Newton who encouraged everyone to show their love for the special people in their lives, “because people don’t always last.”

The oohs and aahs, along with a lot of clapping, however came after the reading of the letter sent from none other than President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Their words rang true to Johnson’s life and marked what a momentous occasion September first really was.

“You have woven your own unique story into the American narrative,” said the letter which prided Johnson as being part of a generation who summoned the compassion and strength to guide our nation through some of the greatest challenges and triumphs.”

Doris Lucille Williams Johnson currently resides here in St. Petersburg at an area nursing home where she is cared for and visited daily by family and friends. She enjoys singing and spending time with other people. She is and will always be remembered for her contributions to society and her devout dedication to the church.

Happy 100th birthday, Doris!

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